Monday, November 13, 2023

Two Novellas (Elizabeth Smart, Boris Pasternak) #NovNov

Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The narrator has fallen in love with the poet on the basis of his poems. She invites the poet and his wife to Monterey, California, where she's living, to meet him. She's just as enthralled by the poet in person as she was when she only knew him through his poetry. But can she do this to his wife?

Oh, yes she can.

The narrator is Elizabeth Smart and the poet is George Barker; his wife is Jessica Barker, and the events more or less follow actual events. So, auto-fiction, avant la lettre?

Yes, but. The prose definitely makes this. You see the Psalms there in the title: is that Grand Central Station or the rivers of Babylon? The Song of Solomon is all over the book. So are the Latin and Greek classics, slyly grandiose: "Jupiter has been with Leda, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars."

There's also interesting things happening with metaphors from the natural world. The main events take place in the late 30s, but Smart is writing the book during World War II in England. Comparisons to natural features from North America--the Mississippi, Niagara Falls--are inundating, but positive as a rule; those of Europe--the pools in Epping Forest, e.g.--smaller, withdrawn. All mostly involve water, or its absence: the Mojave Desert makes a metaphorical appearance.

But the occasional funny pinprick from outside the bubble lets us see another side. A policeman (and yes, the police do get involved): "'What a cad,' he said, 'And the girl's a religious maniac.'" Why, now you mention it, quite possibly yes... "Are all Americans chaste? All, by law." "Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host."

The book was first published in England in 1945. Smart came from a well-to-do Ottawa family, and her mother, appalled Elizabeth was publishing her shame (as she saw it) bought up as many copies of the book as she could get her hands on. It was also the end of the war, so, between those things, not much happened with the book at the time. But when it was reissued in the 60s, its reputation took off. Smart continued her bohemian life, bearing four children to Barker, but never marrying him. (Barker continued his caddishness.) She wrote other works (which I haven't read) but this is considered her masterpiece. She died in 1986.

Weird and wonderful. "Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less."

112p. including an introduction by Brigid Brophy.

Boris Pasternak's The Last Summer

Serezha has just finished his exams, and takes a job as tutor to the eleven-year-old Harry Fresteln. The Fresteln estate is in the Ural Mountains, well away from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Serezha finds his duties light, writes and gallivants at night.

Mrs. Anna Tjornskold is the widow of a Danish pastor who died young. Suddenly near destitution she takes a job as paid companion to Mrs. Fresteln, but once she's stuck in the remote Ural Mountain region, she discovers her role is more maid than companion. She feels denigrated and trapped and unhappy.

There's a frame set in 1916, but the main events take place in the summer of 1914, the last summer before everything goes to pieces.

Then Serezha proposes to Anna.

It's a promising enough premise for a story, but I can't recommend it, at least in this form. (Penguin, 1960, reprinted many times.) There's an introduction by Pasternak's younger sister Lydia, interesting, though it doesn't tell you what you want or need to know. 

But the main problem is the translation. I guess I'll credit the translator (George Reavey) with trying to reproduce things he found in the original, but it just doesn't read well in English. There's undigested bits of Russian: izvoschik (a cabman, it seems), mahorka (a coarse tobacco), calatch (still not perfectly sure about this one. Kolach? Maybe.) I don't know how you would have sorted those before the Internet. There's awkward bits of English: 'a tent of tremblingly-moist, sultry-laurel birch trees.' And extravagant words, even if they are English. Canicularly? Know that one? Canicular: having to do with the dog days of summer. -ly, adverb. In retrospect, you can probably see the can- of canine in it, but it's certainly a long ways from Basic English. Is the Russian word in Pasternak equally obscure?

Anyway, it needs notes or a new translation or likely both. I don't know if those things exist.

92p, including Lydia Pasternak Slater's introduction.


  1. By Grand Central Station was one of my favourite books as a teenager, for obvious reasons. I like Smart's writing and her later book The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals is also wonderful.

    1. That's interesting. I don't think I even knew of it until I moved to Canada. I don't think it's much read in the US (where I lived until my early 30s).

  2. The Elizabeth Smart's reminds me of Paulo Coelho's "By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept" - not a favorite, though it might be because I've read it too young.

    I haven't explored more of Pasternak's after Doctor Zhivago. But judging from your review, I won't miss this one.

    1. I think the poems are the other thing of Pasternak, but that depends so much on the translation. Safe Conduct, his autobiography, is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven't read it.

      I haven't read any Coelho, but he's channeling that same Bible verse in his title isn't he?

    2. Maybe there's a translation into Bahasa Indonesia? That would be interesting to know if it felt better.

  3. Oh, I do think I would like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Adding it to my Read-Before-I-Die list.

    1. She really doesn't seem very well known in the US, which is too bad.

  4. I am intrigued by this one by Pasternak, even if a new translation would be welcomed.
    Very interesting about canicularly.
    In French, these super hot days are also called "la canicule". You are right, there's a connection with dog, simply because it's the time when Sirius and the Sun come up at the same time, and Sirius is called "Canis Majoris", the big dog.

    1. I wonder if there's a good French translation?

      I loved Zhivago (more than once, and in both English translations) and his poetry I find great. I don't know Russian but maybe he's a challenge to translate?

  5. Both sound interesting. I wouldn't mind reading the Smart one.

  6. Both sound good. I have heard of these authors never read them.